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The Architects of Agincourt


Architect at his drawing board. This wood engraving was published on May 25, 1893, in Teknisk Ukeblad, Norway’s leading engineering journal. It illustrates an article about a new kind of upright drawing board delivered by the firm J. M. Voith in Heidenheim a. d. Brenz (in south Germany). The board measures 1800 x 1250 mm, the total height is 2800 mm, and the weight 220 kg.

A key player in the Agincourt tale is young architect Anson Tennant, an avatar in the community circa 1915, said to have been influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement generally and Louis Sullivan and Midwest Progressivism in particular. His presence in Agincourt required a backstory but it also had future implications that even I hadn’t anticipated; indeed, his presence required multiple generations of family, backwards and forwards. So, Anson [1890-1915/1968] is fictional but several other architects who contributed to the town in one way or another were very real. There is no intended hierarchy here; just a brief introduction to each [color coding relates to the “Who’s Who”, q.v.]:


  • SULLIVAN, Louis Henry [1856–1924] is the Founder of the Feast. A casual question about Sullivan, Iowa, and Carnegie libraries is what generated this project in the first place. He designed nothing in Agincourt but his influence was strong.
  • WOOD, William Halsey [1855–1897]. Halsey Wood has been a major research interest far longer than the Agincourt Project has been active; I pretend to be writing a monograph on his brief but brilliant career. As an aid to understanding his work, I’ve asked the question about Wood that I have also posed for Sullivan: How would he have treated a building type not represented in his oeuvre — the county courthouse. So the second Fennimore courthouse is me trying to be Halsey Wood circa 1888. I hope he won’t mind the bald-faced flattery and inevitable misinterpretation. Hey, at least it was fun.
  • BYRNE, Francis Barry [1883–1967]. Chicago architect Barry Byrne was among the last draughtsmen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio. A fervent Roman Catholic, he is one of the few Prairie School disciples who specialized in churches, all of them for Rome. Byrne’s hand can be seen in the mid-century modern design of Christ the King.
  • MENDELSOHN, Erich [1887–1953] — Byrne’s near contemporary was a European immigrant, instilled with Modernism. Mendelsohn designed at least five synagogues during his years in the U.S.
  • JOACHIM & PERLMUTTER [active 1900–1915]. Anson Tennant’s first commission was a negotiation of services-for-rent; his first office. To make the work proportional to the reward, why not allow him to remodel a less-than-successful, i.e., botched, job for the design of Wasserman’s Hardware. His studio-office was situated on the second floor, which he probably shared with an accountant, a dentist, or a lawyer. Joachim & Perlmutter derived from a black-and-white photo of two architects standing in their office; a friend has labelled them “Hans und Franz” and they became J&P, architects from Sioux City, since Agincourt was unlikely to have a resident architect in 1909. I could be wrong. BTW, I had to invent this architectural firm because actual architects never make mistakes.
  • TENNANT, Anson C. [1889–1915/1968]. The hero of our story. I couldn’t have done this without him.
  • LIEBBE, NOURSE & RASMUSSEN [active 1910–1925]. Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen are an actual Des Moines firm from the early 20th century. Their practice is notable for a number of schools and also several Carnegie libraries. They would logically have competed for the Agincourt commission against Anson Tennant. Besides, I like the sound of their name.
  • PROUDFOOT, BIRD & RAWSON [active 1905-1920]. Another Des Moines architectural firm active in the region. They did the first remodeling of St Joseph-the-Carpenter, adding some Arts & Crafts qualities to the Carpenter Gothic original.
  • DUDLEY, Henry [1813–1894]. Dudley was a well known Eastern architect, especially as a designer of Episcopal churches. He and Richard Upjohn (also real) designed or strongly influenced a large number of churches across the country. As an Episcopalian, Anson Tennant added a chapel/family crypt to St Joseph-the-Carpenter shortly before his disappearance in 1915. But in the meantime he needed the original Dudley building to have enlarged by L,N&R.
  • BUCK, Lawrence [1865–1929]. Buck is a favorite “also ran” in architectural history. A contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, they actually officed in the same building, Steinway Hall, and would have passed one another in the elevator many days. Buck’s version of Progressivism, however, was oriented toward the British “Arts & Crafts” of architects like Voysey, Baillie Scott, and Parker & Unwin. [Sorry to be dropping so many names.] I happen to admire Buck’s work, some of which was promoted through the pages of magazines like Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful, one house in particular, which was built in Illinois, New York State, Kansas and California and probably a few other places not yet discovered. Why couldn’t one of them have been in Iowa? Incidentally, Buck designed at least five buildings in Iowa from his Chicago office.
  • SILSBEE, Joseph Lyman [1848–1913]. Chicago architect J. Lyman Silsbee makes two cameo appearances: First as architect for the home built by James and Martha Tennant, Anson’s parents. Later, Anson was encouraged by his father to design an addition to that Shingle Style home. Finally, Silsbee advised Anson on the young man’s decision to enter the profession and may have provided letter’s of introduction.

There may be other minor players in this category I’ve overlooked but these are the biggies.

My all-time favorite architectural firm was the Montréal-based Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, & Sise, who unfortunately did no work in Iowa.

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